The central performance cannot hold in this labouring production.
The Abbey, September 24 to October 31
Around the fourth or fifth repetition of the recurring refrain in this production – ‘Things fall apart / the centre cannot hold’ – it began to feel as if the chorus were delivering a succinct commentary on what we were watching. I don’t think adaptor-director Wayne Jordan meant to offer a scathing review of Barry John O’Connor’s bland and shallow performance in the title role, but I can’t be sure. If they did, he’s operating on a higher level than this production would suggest.
Two things irritated me intensely about Oedipus. Firstly, there was the aforementioned performance of O’Connor. We may have caught him on an off-day, but a distinct lack of baseline self-doubt – indeed of any visible inner life – drags down the performance and the production. We simply don’t see in him the tension of the murderer, the man who thinks he has successfully fled destiny, until his whole past is revealed and things rather suddenly turn up to 11. Rather than reacting with rising horror and anxiety as the full extent of his known and unknown sins become apparent, O’Connor’s Oedipus apparently has 2 modes: benevolent and assured complacency or intense raging. Considering that sharing Oedipus’ slow and horrible realisation is one of the chief pleasures of Sophocles’ play (if such a phrase is appropriate), this lack of subtlety is particularly frustrating.
The performance isn’t helped by my other great bugbear with this production: the pointless and inconsistent addition of contemporary language. Yes, this is an adaptation of Sophocles, but occasionally inserting modern fragments while retaining a core of archaic or stylised dialogue is really quite jarring. When the embrace between Oedipus and Creon (Mark Huberman) feels like two bros meeting up for a few craft beers and a rugby game – rather than a piece of political theatre between two allies at a time of intense pressure – something is quite amiss.
Thankfully, this is the only time when Huberman is unconvincing as Oedipus’ not-entirely-trusted heir and brother-in-law. For most of the play, he holds his own in an extremely strong ‘second tier’ cast. Performances from Fiona Bell as Jocasta and Ronan Leahy as the Stranger are particularly notable. Their fine rendering of a woman slowly realising that she hasn’t cheated fate, and a man discovering that his news brings horror rather than joy, serves to make O’Connor’s performance seem all the weaker.
The most obvious innovations – a set encircled by chairs, and a chorus representing a cross-section of anxious citizenry – also worked well. The mostly empty chairs conveyed the devastation wrought by plague, and the sense that this drama is playing out in full view of the Theban citizens. The chorus were technically highly competent delivering complex and interesting vocal arrangements by Tom Lane, even if some of them seemed to relish over-acting. But Oedipus without a strong central performance will always leave me cold, while the inconsistent script broke the dramatic spell far too often.